Before Black Friday…there was G. Fox

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For decades now, the day after Thanksgiving has been referred to by many as “Black Friday”, the first day of the holiday shopping season. It’s a day of transition from a season of autumn and Thanksgiving to a season of holiday shopping and festivities; a day of drastic sales, crowds and madness at retail stores. As with many aspects of history common folklore often dictates people’s beliefs, falsely.  So, what is the history of “Black Friday”? What does it mean? Where did it come from? How long has it been around and what on earth was it like before “Black Friday”?Today, most people believe “Black Friday” stems from a retail accounting theory that the day after Thanksgiving is the day that retail stores traditionally turn a profit for the year, going from debt (red ink) to profit (black ink) in the books. While history shows the term was related to retail, it was not as directly related as most believe and it’s only through the power of a successful PR campaign that the whole accounting principle is even wrongly believed.

The term “Black Friday” was first used in 1951 in an issue of Factory Management and Maintenance to describe the excessive worker absenteeism that occurred the day after Thanksgiving:

Friday-after-Thanksgiving-itis” is a disease second only to the bubonic plague in its effects.  At least that’s the feeling of those who have to get production out, when the “Black Friday” comes along.
– “Tips to Good Human Relations for Factory Executives” by M.J. Murphy; Factory Management and Maintenance, November 1951, p.137

Our modern day interpretation of “Black Friday” as it is used to relate to retail shopping showed up about a decade later, in 1961, thanks to the Philadelphia Police Department dubbing the two days after thanksgiving as “Black Friday” and “Black Saturday” due to the heavy amounts of traffic and pedestrians that bogged down city streets.

Resulting traffic jams are an irksome problem to the police and, in Philadelphia, it became customary for officers to refer to the post-Thanksgiving days as Black Friday and Black Saturday.
– Public Relations News, December 18, 1961, p.2

Well, that certainly isn’t the holiday spirit downtown businesses want to evoke on one of their highest volume days of the year! Afraid that news of the traffic and congestion may have a negative effect on sales, a group of merchants discussed this problem with Abe S. Rosen, Philadelphia’s Deputy City Representative, who just so happened to be an expert on municipal public relations. His advice was to put a positive spin on it and talk about popularity of the weekend, the hustle-and-bustle, the beauty of the Christmas season and the opportunity to make it a “family-day outing”. Tactically, they increased parking facilities and added additional police officers, as well as attempting to rename it “Big Friday” and “Big Saturday”. Luckily local media cooperated and bit on the new angle, with the exception of the new name. These occurrences were also later detailed in an article “This Friday Was Black with Traffic” in the Philadelphia inquirer on November 25, 1994 as well.

As the concept of “Black Friday” continued to spread to other urban areas in the 70s and 80s, the angle of BF being the first day of profits, or a day of “back in the black”, on the accounting books was introduced in an effort to rebrand the story further.  In an article published on November 28, 1981, in the Philadelphia Inquirer, people were questioned why it is called “Black Friday“? Grace McFeeley, PR spokesperson from the Cherry Hill Mall (NJ) is the first one on record to claim “Because it is a day retailers make profits — black ink” Others replied they believed it came from the media or from the workers who had to work, extra hard, that day instead of being able to spend time with family.

So, here we are in 2013, with folklore and urban myths swirling around the “Black Friday” terminology. Newly added concepts of “Cyber Monday” (the trend of the Monday following Thanksgiving being an incredibly high volume day for online sales) and “Grey Thursday” (the trend of stores now opening on Thanksgiving itself instead of waiting for “Black Friday”) have now been added to the holiday shopping season kickoff weekend.

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As the concept of “Black Friday” was emerging, the glory days of G. Fox, were beginning their decline. Started in 1847 from two German-born brothers, Gerson and Isaac Fox built a brand around a small “fancy goods” store on Main Street in Hartford, CT.  After a fire in 1917, the decision to rebuild not only advanced G. Fox into its glory days but also brought family together, as Beatrice Fox Auerbach, grand-daughter of Gerson, and her husband, George, moved from Utah back to Hartford to help re-establish the company.

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For decades past and until the late 1960s, G. Fox became “the” place to shop, especially during holiday season. It is no doubt that as the concept of “Black Friday” started catching on, G. Fox was at the center of the Connecticut retail landscape and was known for its “amazing holiday displays” both in-store and in their sidewalk windows. Ask anyone who lived in Connecticut during the 30, 40s, 50s and 60 what G. Fox meant to them. You are likely to hear heart-warming stories of family, nostalgia and shopping memories.  After a storied 118 years of being family owned, G. Fox, the largest privately-held department store in New England, was sold in 1965 to the May Department Stores Co. The store remained open until 1992, when it was closed. The building and land was eventually donated to the city of Hartford to later become Capitol Community College.

Gone are the heydays of G. Fox, but the memories linger on in those who were touched by the magical days and years, long before “Black Friday” became a driving force in society.  I encourage each of you to read the CHS “Koopman Family Papers” and “Remembering G. Fox & CO.” to get a deeper understanding of this amazing historical store and family.

Also, there is a wonderful chance to relive or discover the days of G . Fox at the Connecticut Historical Society on Dec 14 with Behind-the-Scenes Tours: Remembering G. Fox.

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Photo credits: Hartford Courant, Department Store Museum, CHS collection

Ed Main is the Communications Manager at CHS

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8 thoughts on “Before Black Friday…there was G. Fox

  1. Thanks for defining BLACK FRIDAY’s origin but more importantly your dynamic presentation about G. FOX&CO. “Those were the days my friend, we thought they’d never end”.
    Lew Brown 71-year-old-proud Hartfordite.

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